Obituary: Ivor Cutler

Unassuming master of offbeat humour whose eccentric take on the world entertained generations

Ivor Cutler, the eccentric poet, singer, songwriter and storyteller, who has died aged 83, appealed to successive generations with his offbeat sense of humour and wonder at the world. In more than four decades of performing he attracted a band of admirers and followers that included such luminaries as philosopher Bertrand Russell, Beatles John and Paul, DJ John Peel and comedian Billy Connolly. Pop mavericks such as Oasis discoverer Alan McGee and Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos were also fans. The scope of his appeal was reflected in his dedicated following on BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 - and many stations beyond.

Cutler's Jewish parents and grandparents came to the UK at the end of the 19th century in the wake of pogroms in eastern Europe. Thinking they were bound for the US, but finding their ship docked at Glasgow, they stayed there. Ivor was born 100 yards from the Rangers ground at Ibrox Park - he perpetuated the myth that his first scream was synchronous with a goal.

His childhood, shared with two brothers and two sisters, should have been happy, but a combination of anti-semitic schoolteachers and the belief that he became a lesser being in his mother's eyes after his younger brother was born seemed to inhibit his development. At the age of three, he tried to kill his younger sibling with a poker, only to be stopped by an intervening aunt. But songs around the piano in three-part harmonies, and the formative moment when, aged six, he won the school prize for his rendition of Robert Burns' My Love is like a Red Red Rose, give a somewhat warmer picture of his upbringing.

Nevertheless, the exaggerated view of a dour Scots childhood, no doubt informed by seeing his peers arriving at school with bare feet - a fact which, he later claimed, helped form his leftwing political views, aged five - appeared in his hilarious writings, Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume 2. With lines such as "Voiding bowels in those days was unheard of. People just kept it in," he used a string of fantastical untruths to expose the reality of his life and the Spartan - and sometimes sadistic - Scottish existence.

In 1939 Cutler was evacuated to Annan. Following some failed attempts by his travelling salesman father to include him in the business, he took a job as an apprentice fitter at Rolls-Royce. In 1941, determined to prove wrong those who claimed that Jews were not pulling their weight by enlisting, he signed up for the RAF. He trained as a navigator, but was dismissed for being too dreamy and absent-minded, apparently more interested in looking at the clouds from the cockpit window than locating a flight path. He served out the rest of the war as a first aid and storeman with the Winsor Engineering Company, then studied at Glasgow School of Art and became a schoolteacher.

Working at a school in Paisley, however, did not agree with Cutler. He hated discipline that required the strap, having received it more than 200 times himself, and in a dramatic gesture took the instrument from his desk, cut it into pieces and dispensed them to the class. Leaving Scotland was, he claimed, "the beginning of my life".

That new life included teaching at AS Neill's Summerhill school. Dubbed a hippy academy where a different approach to education was fostered, Summerhill was run with rules agreed between staff and pupils, and the premise was to educate the whole person. This alternative philosophy appealed to Cutler. He lived in the grounds of the school and engaged the pupils with drama and music. He also married and had two children, although the marriage did not last, and elements of his eccentric behaviour surfaced in his parenting, such as his insistence on sending his son to his first day at school in a kilt.

Cutler continued to teach until 1980 for the Inner London Education Authority - to the chagrin of some parents, who found his unorthodox methods subversive (such as having his pupils improvise, during a drama class, killing their siblings). But he also had a showbiz career, and claimed it was teaching that unlocked his creativity. He began with a gig at the Blue Angel, in London in 1957, which he always referred to as an unmitigated failure, and he did not begin writing poetry until he was 42 - maintaining he was not any good until he was 48.

Cutler hawked his songs around Tin Pan Alley and was eventually recognised by a promoter who recorded his work and introduced him to the comedy producer Ned Sherrin. Sherrin was tickled by Cutler's surrealist folk music and booked him to appear on television; he subsequently performed on the Acker Bilk Show and Late Night Line-Up. On one such appearance he was spotted by Paul McCartney, who invited Cutler to appear in the Beatles' film Magical Mystery Tour (1967). Cutler duly found himself playing Buster Bloodvessel, the bus conductor who announces to his passengers, "I am concerned for you to enjoy yourselves within the limits of British decency" and then develops a passion for Ringo's large aunt Jessie.

In another Beatles connection, his 1967 record, Ludo, was produced by George Martin, who was not amused by Cutler's eccentricities during the Abbey Road recording sessions. Maintaining its appeal to a new generation, the record was re-released on Oasis's label, Creation, in 1998. Cutler's distinctive baritone, coupled with the wheeze of the harmonium, became the trademark of his songwriting style as much as his offbeat, imaginative and observant lyrics.

For the latter part of his career, Cutler lived on his own in a flat on Parliament Hill Fields, north London, which he found by placing an ad in the New Statesman saying "Ivor Cutler seeks room near Heath. Cheap!". There he would receive visitors, and his companion Phyllis King, in a reception room filled with clutter, pictures and curios, including his harmonium, some ivory cutlery (a pun, of course) and a wax ear stapled to the wall with six-inch nails - proof of his dedication to the Noise Abatement Society, because of which he forbade his audience ever to whistle in appreciation at his work. The bicycle was his preferred mode of transport, its cow-horn handlebars in the sit-up-and-beg position in line with his Alexander technique practice.

Besides his accomplishments in songwriting and poetry (he was included in Faber's collection of Scottish verse, edited by Douglas Dunn), Cutler also engaged in quasi-performance art. He was wont to carry chalk to draw circle faces around dog excrement on the pavement, and would hand out gold sticky labels inscribed with such legends as "Made of dust", "True happiness is knowing you're a hypocrite" and "Changing your pants is like taking a clean plate".

Although he often took a stern demeanour with strangers, and insisted on them addressing him as Mr Cutler, it was in many ways a front. In less public company, his face would readily break into a grin, and sometimes he would remove his fez or hat to reveal a bald pate, about which he once remarked: "Sur le volcan ne pousse pas l'herbe" (Grass does not grow on a volcano).

Such bon mots were indications of his love of languages. He could quote from Homer, taught himself Chinese and was in the habit of frequenting Soho's Chinatown, where he could display his knowledge - although, typically, he chose Chinese above Japanese because the textbooks were cheaper. With the onset of old age he was increasingly worried about losing his memory, given that his father and brother had both developed Alzheimer's disease. It was a fear that was to be tragically fulfilled. He retired from the stage at the age of 82.

Cutler seemed to live by the epigrams he wrote, particularly "Imperfection is an end; perfection is only an aim," as well as his belief that art was therapy. As a creator of work that was bizarre, unique, sinister, bleak, funny, touching - and sometimes achingly moving - it proved to be therapeutic as much for his fans as for its creator. He is survived by his sons.

· Ivor Cutler, poet, songwriter and performer, born January 15 1923; died March 3 2006


Mark Espiner

The GuardianTramp

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